What You Need To Know About Plant Propagation


Q. I would like to try my hand at propagation. What is the difference between softwood and hardwood propagation? Are there any secrets to success?

Propagation by cutting (also called “clonal propagation”) is a form of asexual reproduction. The advantage to this process is that the resulting plants will be identical to the original plant. 

When deciding which plant to take cuttings from, choose one that is vigorous and free of pests and disease. Use a sharp knife to minimize damage (mangled cuttings are not happy cuttings!). Keep a disinfecting solution close by so you can sanitize the blade between cuttings. I like to use isopropyl alcohol since it’s non-corrosive. If using rooting hormone powder, dispense a small amount into a dish to avoid contaminating the entire bottle. Rooting media should hold water but drain freely. I recommend a mixture of coir or peat moss, vermiculite, and sand. The media should be sterile and nutrient-free. Moisten the mixture beforehand. I’ve found that coir and peat moss can take some time to completely hydrate and can absorb a surprisingly large amount of water.

Softwood cuttings can be taken in the spring when succulent new growth appears. Remove a 2- to 6-inch long piece of stem, including the growing tip. Cut right below a node and remove all leaves, flowers, and buds. This ensures that any energy contained in the cutting goes toward root production instead of flower or leaf production. Dip the cut end into rooting powder and tap off the excess. Push the cut end into the medium so that at least one node is below soil level (nodes will develop into roots). The cutting should be able to stand up by itself. Keep the cutting(s) moist and in a cool environment with bright indirect light. Application of bottom heat can encourage root growth, but it also dries the medium quickly. If using a heat mat, check the moisture levels several times per day.

Hardwood cuttings can be taken in the winter dormancy period. Take 6- to 20-inch cuttings from the previous season’s growth, but don’t include the tip. Cuttings can be taken either during or after winter pruning. Since there’s no growing tip to tell you which end of the cutting is which, I recommend cutting the top end straight across and the bottom end at an angle. Dip the bottom end into rooting powder, tap off the excess, and bundle the cuttings together with a rubber band. Place them in a bag containing moistened sawdust, peat, or coir and store them in a cool, dark place where you won’t forget about them. We put ours in the garage fridge next to the beer. Check the bag every so often to make sure it’s not drying out. 

If you want to propagate a fig tree, forget all of the above and just shove a short cutting into the ground.

Los Angeles County

mglosangeleshelpline@ucdavis.edu; 626-586-1988; http://celosangeles.ucanr.edu/UC_Master_Gardener_Program/

Orange County

ucceocmghotline@ucanr.edu; 949-809-9760; http://mgorange.ucanr.edu/

Riverside County

anrmgriverside@ucanr.edu; 951-683-6491 ext. 231; https://ucanr.edu/sites/RiversideMG/

San Bernardino County

mgsanbern@ucanr.edu; 909-387-2182; http://mgsb.ucanr.edu/

Laura Simpson | Columnist Laura Simpson has been a master gardener since 2002, and a master food preserver since 2015. She and her husband, Jim (also a master gardener), live near Temecula in an ordinary tract home. Their edible landscape consists of an ever-changing variety of fruit trees, herbs and vegetables. Together, they have five children. Laura frequently speaks on gardening and food preservation topics, including vegetable and herb gardening, edible landscaping and food safety. Before joining the master gardener program, she worked in the biotech industry and in biomedical research. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in molecular biology from UC San Diego.

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